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Dustin Hoffman's 'Quartet' Boasts British Acting Royalty

4 veteran stars bring heart to a music-infused drama

Director: Dustin Hoffman
Rating: PG-13. Running time: 97 min.
Stars: Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins

For his film directorial debut, the iconic American actor Dustin Hoffman brings us Quartet, a very quiet (despite its subject, an opera quartet), very British, very grown-up movie about how it is never too late to do almost anything in life.

Quartet is based on a 1984 documentary called Tosca's Kiss about how, before his death, the Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi bequeathed his Milan mansion to retired opera singers and musicians who in old age could hardly afford to pay rent. The film masterfully conveys the age-old human impulse to "refuse to go gently into that good night," as Hoffman himself explains it. The director adds that he was struck, watching the original documentary, by how the musicians featured, though in some cases quite debilitated, "would open their mouths, and their voices refused to go away."

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Hoffman sets his film in the English countryside and has cast in the leading roles an ensemble of British legends. There's Tom Courtenay (nominated for Oscars for his roles in The Dresser and Doctor Zhivago) as the serious and a bit wounded Reggie Paget; the Scottish comedian and banjo performance artist Billy Connolly as the still-spunky and horny Wilf Bond; and Pauline Collins (the one and only Shirley Valentine) as Cissy Robson, who is in the early stages of dementia.

The three former quartet partners have all settled quite happily into the very upscale, classic Beecham House, where they're enjoying their retirement with fellow musicians and preparing for their annual gala concert. But with the arrival of Jean Horton (played by the incomparable Maggie Smith), the group's one-time fourth partner and Reggie's ex-wife, everyone is thrown for a loop. Horton enjoyed a magnificent solo career after ending her relationship with the others, and her big ego remains intact at Beecham. Will she attempt to mend old wounds and reconnect with her friends? And will the four, at the behest of gala director Cedric (Michael Gambon, who appeared recently with Hoffman on HBO's Luck), perform their once-famed quartet from Rigoletto for this year's concert?

Next page: Insights into Hoffman's directorial strategy. »

Hoffman's brilliance here is that he understands rejection, and he's spent a lot of time thinking about — and railing against — stereotypical views of aging. What he demands of this already-very-talented group of actors is compassion for their characters and what they're going through. He drives his actors to elicit nuance as they interact with one another in romantic, funny, sad, but always realistic ways. Perhaps because he once dreamed of being a jazz pianist (and continues to practice on the side), Hoffman ingeniously infuses the film with passionate musical performances by casting a number of professional musicians in supporting roles. Many of them, age 70 or older, are still in top form, although, as the director admits, "no one had rung their phone for 30, 40, even 50 years." Of note are the 80-something trumpet player Ronnie Hughes and the Welsh soprano Dame Gwyneth Jones.

A minor complaint about Quartet is that the plot moves along somewhat predictably. And in a visually beautiful film, rich in setting and costumes, the final scene (spoiler alert) is exclusively an aural experience. While Courtenay, Connolly, Collins and Smith are by no means, in real life, professional opera singers, as the theme of Quartet suggests, it should not have been too late to try.

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